Transferring Grassroots Experiences into New Development Theories and Concepts

Chapter 4: Development Professionalism

Part of being a development practitioner also involves having an understanding of the attitudes, skills, knowledge, values, and beliefs of the staff working at your organization. It is also important to be able to develop an understanding of the need for facilitating experimentations and encouraging innovation through being a reflective team member. The purpose of the development professionalism module of the workshop was to help NGO participants reflect on their organizational processes and mechanisms and identify areas in which they can work to refine and strengthen them, ultimately improving the efficiency of the present processes.

There was one presentation in this module. Development Professionalism: Opportunities and Challenges Ahead1 shares the human resources development practices of AKRSP, an NGO in Gujarat.

Development Professionalism: Opportunities and Challenges Ahead

AKRSP’s is an NGO consisting of 185 staff members working on a range of development problems including the under utilization of resources in tribal areas, salination of ground water in coastal regions, techniques for coping with weather unpredictability, overuse of agricultural land, and purification of drinking water. There are four spearhead teams dealing with participatory irrigation management, savings and credit, water resource development, Swa-Shakti (Rural Women’s Development and Empowerment) Project, agriculture, joint forest management, micro enterprise development, and bio gas.

AKRSP possesses the usual healthy environment prevalent in many NGOs: good interpersonal relations, participatory decision making, and an organizational attitude that considers people as its most valuable asset. Unfortunately, AKRSP’s human resources division is not without its challenges. The workforce is heterogeneous and multicultural; differences in education, expectations, and values complicate job roles and pose serious challenges to managers. Is it possible for AKRSP to convert this diversity from being a challenge to being a strength for the organization?

In an attempt to address this question, AKRSP employs a planned intervention strategy to integrate staff development with organizational growth. Their strategy includes leadership development, succession planning, team work, task and performance management, simple standardized procedures, strong organizational culture and values, career planning, and various forms of motivating staff.

Staff development and training is integral to AKRSP’s human resources development (HRD) strategy. The basic philosophy of HRD at AKRSP is that people have immense potential and that this potential can be developed with systematic efforts. Training is a planned process that facilitates learning and establishes the optimum man-task relationship. Strategic planning in training, performance appraisal, and motivational support is required to ensure that staff members acquire the four competencies necessary in field-knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values for development practitioners. AKRSP imparts short term, long term, long distance, and residential trainings in both technical and academic fields. Central to AKRSP’s HRD systems is the development of skills ranging from simple motor skills to complex administrative skills; the fostering of loyalty to a cause, cooperation, and a commitment to reaching targets; and the imparting of knowledge to employees regarding the work environment, job content, quality of work, and an understanding of the problems of modern industry.

AKRSP is interested in training its staff for several reasons. This professional training enables staff to become good at multitasking. It helps with keeping staff abreast of the changing policies, strategies, and roles of the organization in a dynamic environment—changes which are essential for the viability and sustainability of the organization. New recruits must also be trained to adequately fulfil their job expectations. Training is also necessary if the organization needs to use present employees in several capacities; due to the existing salary structure in many NGOs, it is hard to retain qualified professionals and employees often need to perform multiple roles.

Training at AKRSP takes place in successive stages. First, there is pre-training which includes a needs analysis, the selection of the trainer and trainees, the topic, and the time frame. Second, there is the training itself. This stage includes designing the training modules, establishing the venue and ensuring the infrastructure is appropriate, and ensuring that the prerequisite knowledge and personality of the trainer are sufficiently addressed. Third, a post-training takes place; this includes feedback of the trainees comparing their learning from the training against the designed parameters. Trainings are also usually accompanied by “follow-up” sessions which include reviews and presentations at meetings. Best learnings are shared. In addition to this training process for ongoing human resources development, at AKRSP it is mandatory for every new recruit to undergo a four-day training on gender equity and sensitization. This is done through exposure visits and is an important part of the learning of AKRSP staff.

Staff-generated feedback is an important part of AKRSP’s organizational culture. All feedback is read and signed by the CE and returned to the submitting staff member. Additionally, any major shift in policy or programme design is always debated. Several regular meetings are held including programme committee meetings, budget and finance committee meetings—both at the cluster level and the board level, investment committee meetings, personal committee meetings, core team meetings between managers, coordination meetings between the 14+ area managers, SHT meetings, cluster meetings, and quarterly progress reviews.

Along with providing trainings and taking staff feedback seriously, AKRSP believes in using a rewards and recognition scheme to help motivate their staff. Some examples of rewards include the “Best AKRSPian” individual performance-based award, team awards, support team awards, SHT awards, and individual awards for the administrative and finance teams. AKRSP is working with human resources faculty members from IRMA to develop an effective 360° performance appraisal.

As can be seen, AKRSP’s efforts with HRD are necessary for its development as an NGO. With its growth, AKRSP’s organizational structure has changed from a simple one to a complex matrix. To enhance excellence in performance, AKRSP is constantly seeking strategies to deal with the increased complexity. Along with this organizational complexity, the growth has also posed several challenges to AKRSP’s human resources department. For example, AKRSP must consider the physical capacity of their staff; a large percentage of the staff is in the 30 to 40 age group and family and health problems impair the performance and enthusiasm of older staff members. Developing a sense of ownership in the organization among employees is not always easy; monetary consideration still takes precedence for many—and this is apparent in the difficulty AKRSP has in retaining highly motivated, high performing staff. Needs assessments and strategic trainings take time to develop and implement, yet they are ongoing necessities to address performance related issues in the organization.


Many organizations face similar challenges when scaling their operations. Guiding staff in managing role shifts and encouraging them to strike a balance between their professional and personal lives is also challenging. Related to this, when employees are required to multi-task, without training, many find themselves unable to prioritize responsibilities appropriately. Conflict between various offices within an organization invariably results in suboptimum staff performance. If diversity can be harnessed appropriately, a multi-cultural workforce can be a great asset for an organization; however, this is rarely—or certainly not easily—achieved.

Another problem, especially for growing organizations, is developing a sense of “ownership” in staff members. Rewards systems can help; however, for many organizations, monetary rewards are simply unrealistic, especially since they are often unsustainable due to financial constraints. Moreover, it is difficult to assess the best performer for such awards as individual performance involves the interplay of various factors. A well-designed 360° feedback system can help with the challenges of performance review.

Organizations themselves need to periodically review their organizational culture. Some organizations are more clearly hierarchical and “performance demanding” in their organizational design, while others are more co-linear—the organizational culture promotes staff learning from each other. Whatever the case—and no matter what the size of the staff of the organization—the individual should not be lost. A committed HRD process can help each individual to gain clarity of purpose with their work.

NGOs face additional challenges in their organizational design. For example, should NGOs continue to be service oriented, as they have been for years past? Or should their emphasis begin to shift to efficiency? If they shift, how will this affect their organizational culture? When speaking of an organization’s culture, how is this developed? What kind of consensus among the staff is necessary when building the organization’s culture? What can NGOs offer as incentives to continue to motivate their staff? Which are the most discouraging elements of the organization’s culture for staff members? How can organizations maintain a balance between staff recruitment and staff retention?

Organizations also need to revisit the concept of “professionalism.” Professionalism can be seen as an attitude to work that covers a range of elements including systematic functioning, pride in work, and quality of work. Professionalism extends beyond existing knowledge and competency; it includes the ability to interact and learn from others. The concept of professionalism is also not one that is restricted to NGOs; however, working in the development sector does often require a different mindset than what is common in other sectors.

  1. Presented by Mr. Ashok Gupta, AKRSP [back]

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